From Kitchen Knives to Garden Forks: Chefs Get Growing
by Kim Motylewski
For some chefs and restaurant owners, it's not enough to orchestrate the dining experience from kitchen to table. They are driven to master the entire food loop, from field to fork and back again. They want to seed the carrots before serving them. Raise the birds before braising them. Then scrape the plates into compost buckets, to feed the soil or fill troughs back on the farm.
In Metro Boston, the numbers of chef-farmers are few. They are buying or leasing farmland outside of town, raising vegetables and protein themselves or hiring skilled growers. In at least one case they are husband and wife.
All of these chefs and owners could probably squeeze around one large table. If they did, all would talk about their passion for high quality produce. They would agree that they hope to attract customers with their claim to the freshest homegrown ingredients. Each would have a unique story to tell, a special motivation for embracing this approach, one linked to family, place and community.
Here are a few of those stories.
Charlie's Red House Farm
The pub scene beneath the faux Tiffany lamps and neon beer signs of Charlie's Kitchen might be the last place you'd expect to find an agro entrepreneur, but find one you will. Paul Overgaag, the chef and owner of this Harvard Square institution, is cultivating more than a beer garden outside his doors. In February 2009 he purchased a 64-acre farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts, to supply his restaurants.
Overgaag owns the Red House as well, situated catty-corner to Charlie's Kitchen. Part historic house, part contemporary addition, it offers a classier experience. Spring lunch and dinner menus featured shellfish and homemade pasta. Overgaag takes pride in the high-quality ingredients and simple preparation of his dishes: "We import our pasta flour from Switzerland. It costs a fortune! But it's worth it."
Overgaag's appreciation for good food began with his father, who ran a cheese business in Holland when Paul was a child. Inside the Red House and Charlie's Kitchen, family ties hold pride of place alongside business considerations. Paul's youngest brother, Jaap, is the general manager of the pub. The decision to farm involved an older brother named Kees.
Kees had been working with troubled kids and farming in central France for a decade. In the fall of 2008, he was going through a divorce and looking for a new opportunity when his brother phoned him on his birthday. "Paul told me, ‘I'm thinking of buying a farm.' I came and saw it and I was in love."
Last July, Kees immigrated to the United States and got busy putting Charlie's Red House Farm in shape for this season: clearing brush, reroofing the aging barn, insulating the house, building an herb garden and pheasant coop.
Three plastic-covered hoop houses now stand behind the main house. Kees has been growing salad greens inside them all winter. He'll start his carrots, zucchinis, peppers and tomatoes there too, before fieldplanting later in the season. Small flocks of chickens, ducks, turkeys and a handful of goats populate the barn. Pheasants and rabbits are on their way, all to supply the restaurants.
Would Paul have started farming if not for Kees? "I helped him say yes," Kees answers. "With something like this, so far away from town, you need someone you have confidence in; someone willing to work for not much, seven days a week, 10 hours a day."
For his part, Paul sees farming as a business decision: "I'm really inspired by the idea of being in charge of my own supply chain." Over the long term, he hopes to save money by being the grower. Market shocks that send prices up never seem to reverse themselves, he observes. "The only guy who loses is the buyer."
This drive for self-sufficiency motivates Overgaag's energy investments as well. Both restaurants and the farmhouse are equipped to produce their own solar hot water. Behind the hoop houses, the brothers have installed four enormous photovoltaic panels that together produce up to 100 kilowatts per day, virtually all the farm's power. Paul figures his energy investment in the farm will pay for itself in seven years.
Regarding the farm project as a whole, he's philosophical: "A baby was born. He needs to crawl. He cannot start walking until he has crawled. You take your time. You do it right." In five years, he says, he'll evaluate the youngster's progress.
Apple Street Farm
For some chefs and owners, the move to farming is a natural extension of their long relationships with local growers who supply their kitchens, and a green thumb that longs for greater expression. Frank McClelland, chef and CEO of L'Espalier, certainly fits that description.
The New England-French haute cuisine served at L'Espalier, and the rustic, Provençal-inspired fare of Sel de laTerre-its sister restaurants-were composed of many locally grown ingredients even before Mc-Clelland took up a garden fork and started planting.
A long-time resident of the North Shore, McClelland moved his family to Apple Street Farm, a 14-acre property in Essex, where racehorses were once were bred. In 2009 he plunged into raising a wide variety of produce and livestock.
"I've always wanted to do this. I wish I'd done it sooner," he says. An incubator on the kitchen counter hatches a few turkey eggs at a time. Off the kitchen, a small conservatory heated by a wood stove serves as a greenhouse for hundreds of seedlings early in the season. Beds of salad greens and herbs lay close to the house. Beyond these stand a barn, chicken coop, fields and paddocks.
After late nights at the restaurant, McClelland is up at dawn, feeding
animals, tending beds or harvesting produce to carry into town. He calls six hours of sleep "nice," adding "I don't look at the farm as work."
One of McClelland's long-time employees, another chef named Tony Demorais, is McClelland's farm foreman. The Brazilian-born Demorais likes the busyness of the kitchen and the peacefulness of the farm. Early in the season, he splits his time between L'Espalier and Apple Street. As the season heats up, he turns all his attention to the land. The day I visited he was digging a new bed for raspberry canes. Both men work six or seven days a week.
By the end his first season,McClelland figures he and Demorais supplied the four restaurants with about half of their produce, from little more than one cultivated acre. There were eggs, chicken, turkey, quail, pheasant, duck and one pig for each restaurant as well. This year his chefs can expect two pigs each and honey from the new hives. Mc-Clelland is also offering two dozen vegetable shares this season, and wine dinners on the farm.
Growing all this food is clearly a passion for McClelland. "I love digging up potatoes. It's not a money-maker, but I don't care." He has set up the farm as a business, but his goal is simply to break even. If the effort helps L'Espalier and Sel de laTerre improve their product and the guest experience, then he'll consider it a success.
McClelland also intends to be a leader among chefs who take farmto-fork to heart. "If you follow your passion, people will follow you.... Three or four years from now, I'll be shocked if there aren't a dozen" similar businesses. He thinks that other chefs with his inclination toward gardening and high-quality ingredients will ride the groundswell of public interest in locally grown, organic food.
Gibbet Hill Farm
At Gibbet Hill in Groton, the restaurant-and-farm story is like the old chicken and egg riddle. Which one really came first, if each implies the other?
In the summer of 2000, over 500 acres of pasture and orchard lands in Groton were slated for housing development. Famous lines of Black Angus cattle had been bred on the site since the end of World War II. The barns and ranch symbolized Groton's agricultural heritage. Businessman and Groton native Steven Webber stepped in and purchased the land to prevent the subdivision and was hailed as a local hero. Webber's eldest son, Josh, then organized the sale of conservation restrictions on the majority of the property, preventing future development.
Joined by his brother, Jed, and sister, Kate, the Webbers renovated two enormous barns on the site, turning one into a steakhouse, the Gibbet Hill Grill. The other became a special functions hall, The Barn at Gibbet Hill.The oldest house in Groton, built in 1690, stands at the entrance to the property. A remnant herd of 50 or 60 cattle still grazes on the hills behind the restaurant.
"Thirty years ago Groton would not have supported a restaurant like this," says Josh of the upscale steakhouse, which from the beginning was committed to using fine, local ingredients. "It was too rural." But now with the technology industry reaching to Route 95/128, there is more population and sophistication.
Before long, their chef and customers were looking out the windows at the rolling green sward and asking the obvious question: Why not farm this fertile land?
Seeing an opportunity to build on the history of their location, the Webbers decided to do just that. They don't have enough land to produce very much beef, only a tiny percentage of the restaurant's needs. But done right, they could supply nearly all its produce.
In 2009 the Webbers hired Kate Rowe to grow vegetables and herbs for the Grill and their restaurant in Hingham, the Scarlet Oak Tavern. Rowe, who had been running a five-acre market garden near Chicago and selling to some restaurants, saw the job at Gibbet Hill as "the perfect opportunity to work directly with a chef, and have more say in the whole cycle."
The first season presented some challenges to the Midwestern-trained farmer: steep and rocky terrain, rusty cauliflower and a disappointing potato crop. But it brought many successes as well. By season's end, Rowe had filled a root cellar with onions, carrots, turnips and enough Kubocha, Baby Blue Hubbard and Delicata squashes to keep squash soup on the menu for most of the winter.
The Webbers say the decision to grow their own food yielded a bumper crop of resumes when the Grill advertised for a new executive chef this spring. Unlike previous hiring cycles, says Josh, "we were in a position to choose among some top-notch chefs." Tom Fosnot, previously the executive chef at Rocca Kitchen and Bar in Boston's South End, took the job. "I think every chef 's dream is to have such incredibly fresh produce outside their front door," he says.
Chefs and owners also know that guests are more and more concerned about the origin of their food. Jed and Josh expect that several aspects of their approach will draw customers. This year they're adding a kitchen garden at the Hingham site, honeybees and a new 50-member CSA program. Pickup hours for vegetable shares will coincide with meal times at the restaurants, and shareholders will occasionally receive preserves, pickles or other jarred treats made from Gibbet Hill produce.
The brothers see a lot of potential for building the business. They are doing it in a place that really matters to them, and one they hope will matter to others. "You can come here and take a walk to the top of the hill; see the cows, the hunting lodge, look down on the fields," Josh notes. "It's not just one dish we want guests to remember," Jed explains, "but the whole place, the whole vibe."
If Charlie's Red House, Apple Street and Gibbet Hill farms are the newlyweds among metro Boston's chef-farmer pairs, then Chris Kurth is the established family man. Kurth has years more experience as a grower and restaurant partner than the others. He cultivates much more acreage than they do, and he has a more diverse client base.
Kurth is married to his number one customer, Ana Sortun, founding chef and owner of Oleana restaurant and Sofra bakery-café. But the business relationship between his farm and her restaurants is not a monogamous one. Kurth is also a primary supplier to a handful of other restaurants, including B&G Oysters, #9 Park, Beacon Hill Bistro and Henrietta's Table, among others. The farm also provides vegetable shares to 300 CSA members.
"With a few acres," says Kurth, "I could do a lot for Oleana, but I couldn't have the diversity" of crops or customers. The farm operates in Sudbury on land Kurth's parents have owned for decades, and on conservation land leased from the town. Its 50 cultivated acres compares to no more than three acres on each of the other farms described here. The level of mechanization is higher too. Sure, Kurth's crew might use hand-pushed seeders in some situations, but they also run a tractor-driven transplanter that takes four people to operate and sets seedlings in two rows at a time.
Kurth has developed a method of selling to restaurants that combines the CSA concept of up-front investment with chefs' particular need for choice and control. His value proposition to restaurants is one that only a farmer with a strong track record could credibly make. His core clients begin paying for their produce long before seeds are planted, and spread their costs over 12 months. Kurth gets upfront capital to begin the season-a remarkable commitment from a crowd for whom prepaying is heretical. Their confidence in Kurth, and their interest in his product, is such that they're willing to assume some of his risk as a grower, along with their own uncertainties about filling their tables. In exchange, the restaurants may weigh in on planting decisions. They place custom orders from the list of crops available at any given time, and they get first dibs on goods in limited supply.
When Chris and Ana met, Sortun had already opened Oleana, her award-winning restaurant inspired by Eastern Mediterranean food traditions and spices. Kurth had been farming for several years. At the time, he was teaching and tilling at The Farm School in Athol. Having learned from the economic failure of his first CSA effort, his central subject was the business of farming.
Together, Sortun and Kurth have learned a lot and point to several lessons for similar partners. First and foremost: Farm and restaurant are separate businesses. He grows and harvests; she prepares and serves. Sure, they admire one another's talents, they cross-promote, they support each other emotionally, but one operation does not subsidize the other.
Regarding the decision to grow-it-yourself on a commercial scale, Sortun says, "You can't do it just because you love it." Both Sortun and Kurth are clear-eyed about what it takes to succeed financially. Kurth adds, "Farming can be done profitably at many different scales, even one or two acres, but that better be a solo operation." To him, working with his crew of two to 12 others is one of the great pleasures of the job. "Working alone is not necessarily tons of fun."
Even with a dedicated restaurant as its primary customer, Kurth cautions newcomers that it will take years "of happy struggle," perhaps as many as eight, for a farm to build up its soil and acquire the necessary equipment to maximize its efficiency. He adds that farmers must "have the courage" to price their produce in line with the true cost of raising it, and that can be high.
"My chefs get nervous at certain times of year," says Sortun, "because they are responsible for food costs." Still, she reminds her chefs and others how hard farmers work-way harder than the toughest chef, she figures. "To grow really clean beautiful food ... should be worth more." Her advice to restaurants that buy some or all of their produce from local growers, or a linked farm, is to think of food costs in annual terms. Economize in winter in order to afford the very best summer offerings. Her chefs "have had to get creative in how they do this...over many years."
Finally, chefs must adjust to the realities of nature. The baby turnips harvested this week will be bigger than those pulled last week, for example. "I think this teaches chefs a ton about how picky they are, and how to work with a farmer," says Sortun. "It teaches them what's really important."
Kim Motylewski is a Cambridge-based writer, gardener and eater. She can be reached at email@example.com.